Humans learned how to control fire sometime between 400,000 and a million years ago. Not only did that revolutionize early diets and keep predators at bay, but controlling fire also extended the day and altered circadian rhythms by interfering with melatonin production and allowing our ancestors to stay awake. Decades of work with Africa’s Kalahari Bushmen suggests nighttime conversations allowed early hunter-gatherer societies to participate in social interactions—without interfering with economically productive activities—which led to the development and strengthening of cultural institutions. The work was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.
To investigate how people use evening hours in hunter-gatherer societies, Polly Wiessner from the University of Utah recorded activities and conversations among the Ju/’hoansi (or !Kung) Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana and Namibia during both daylight and night hours. (Exclamation marks, slashes, and apostrophes represent click sounds in their language.) Some 4,000 !Kung Bushmen live in the Kalahari Desert today, and on most nights, they hold firelight gatherings in groups of up to 15 people. Each family has a hearth, but people often converge at a single fire at night.
“We can’t tell about the past from the Bushmen,” Wiessner explains in a news release. “But these people live from hunting and gathering. For 99 percent of our evolution, this is how our ancestors lived. What transpires during the firelit night hours by hunter-gatherers? It helps answer the question of what firelit space contributes to human life.” Stories and gifts, she says, were the original social media.
Wiessner analyzed conversations involving at least five people from two sets of data: notes on 174 daytime and nighttime conversations from 1974, as well as digital recordings of 68 firelight stories from the 1970s (and retold between 2011 and 2013), which were transcribed by Bushmen.
Her findings show that 75 percent of daytime conversations involved economic discussions (such as hunting for meals) or gossip and complaints that helped regulate social relations (like premarital customs and extramarital affairs). By contrast, nighttime conversations steered away from tensions and worries of the day and centered instead on singing, dancing, and storytelling—together, these comprised 81 percent of firelight time.
Nighttime topics centered on virtual communities made up of people living far away, traditional myths, and beings in the spirit world. Healers go into trances and “travel to god’s village and communicate with the spirits of deceased loved ones who are trying to take sick people away,” Wiessner says. All these firelit activities helped reinforce traditions, promote harmony and equality, and spark the imagination.
Firelight hours for early human societies, her findings suggest, may have helped develop human cognitive capacities for transmitting cultural practices and norms, understanding others, and extending cooperation beyond camp limits.
“There is something about fire in the middle of the darkness that bonds, mellows and also excites people. It’s intimate,” Wiessner says. “Nighttime around a fire is universally time for bonding, for telling social information, for entertaining, for a lot of shared emotions.”
Images: Polly Wiessner, University of Utah